A Major Addition

It all started with one course offering — Introduction to Neuroscience — in 2001. Then, due to that class’ popularity, more and various courses were presented, and a neuroscience minor was born in 2004. Now, after 19 years to “grow up,” a full-fledged neuroscience major will be offered at Hope College starting with the 2019-20 academic year. The growth of those neuroscience offerings, along with student interest, are due in no small part to the work of the program’s first parent, founding director Dr. Leah Chase, and now its adoptive and new leader, Dr. Gerald Griffin.

Dr. Gerald Griffin and Dr. Leah Chase

The way one neuroscience class resulted in an eventual major is not surprising, given Hope’s solid scientific reputation, yet adding a new major program was not initially the plan, Chase says.  The plan was to offer that one class to employ Chase’s teaching know-how (she’s an associate professor of both biology and chemistry) and research specialty (on neurotransmitter systems) while satisfying expressed interest that Hope students were voicing.

“It was a long journey, but there were important landmarks along the way.”

“To be perfectly honest, back then a major wasn’t even the goal,” says Chase. “The first goal was to offer the neuroscience class here with a supporting lab to go with it. We got the grant from NSF (National Science Foundation) to create that lab and from there we weren’t sure yet where it would go.”

Student interest remained strong, and with the 2015 faculty additions of Griffin, associate professor of biology and psychology, and Dr. Andrew Gall, assistant professor of psychology, a new major in neuroscience made every sense to add to the list of Hope’s 80-plus majors, minors and pre-professional programs.

“It was a long journey, but there were important landmarks along the way,” says Chase. “Getting Gerald and Andy to Hope was really important, so was having dedicated neuroscience lab space (in the Schaap Science Center) and getting a grant from HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) which included support for the development of the neuroscience minor. All of that made going from a minor to a major at this time seem like the perfect fit.”

Neuroscience — the study of the brain and nervous system to better understand human behavior — naturally blends the academic worlds of biology, chemistry and psychology. At Hope though, it’s more than that. Students who major in neuroscience also must select from a list of classes in engineering, computer science, physics, mathematics and philosophy for a total of 63 to 67 credits. With such a breadth of requirements across several disciplines, the neuroscience major leans heavily into Hope’s liberal arts tradition.

“We spent a long time thinking about how we would design this major,” says Chase, who has served on the governing board of Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience and currently serves as vice president of the Kenneth H. Campbell Foundation for Neurological Research. “All of us were sitting there looking at other programs, and we wanted to be sure two things happened with ours. One, it had to fit well with national norms for neuroscience study and, two, it had to have a very unique Hope-College stamp on it.”

Neuroscience naturally blends the academic worlds of biology, chemistry and psychology. At Hope though, it’s more than that.

Signs that the new neuroscience major has the Hope College mark written all over it will be seen as neuroscience students become active in programs such as Memory and Music — helping patients with dementia augment memories by playing music from earlier decades. Hope’s Brain Days and Brain Awareness Week teaches elementary students about neuroscience fundamentals through a science fair.  Taking classes like Philosophy of Science or Medical Ethics will provide a holistic preparation that produces ethically-rooted scientists. Exploring phantom limb pain with Dr. Katharine Polasek in Hope’s engineering department, or discovering the biomarkers of apathy in patients with Alzheimer’s disease with Dr. Emilie Dykstra Goris in Hope’s nursing department is yet another way neuroscience “will have the kind of interesting overlaps that only Hope can provide,” 

Of course, research opportunities — another Hope trademark — will begin as early as students’ Introduction to Neuroscience course and continue through advanced neuroscience core courses as well. In the neuroscience capstone course, senior students will write an original grant proposal, conduct an original research study, and write a complete journal-style research manuscript.

While more than 50 students are enrolled in neuroscience introduction classes each semester, about 30 are currently either neuroscience composite majors or minors. With the addition of an official major now, Griffin sees more growth on the horizon, and he’s ready for making his leadership priorities ones of community- and future-building.

“My first big focus will be to create a neuroscience community amongst our students now that we have a major,” says Griffin who, in January 2019, was named an Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. “In the past, our students who were (neuroscience) minors had been majors in the biology or chemistry or psychology or other departments. Now they’ll be in this new major and we’ll work on that. . .  We’re also open to expanding opportunities There’s a whole burgeoning field of neuro-economics, for example, which is the neuroscience of decision-making. That could be a great opportunity. Basically, we’ll keep looking at ways to help our neuroscience students use their knowledge for a greater good.”

Goodnight, Sweet Dreams, and a Fitbit ® for You Too

Two Hope psychology professors are hoping their recent research will help parents understand the importance and ways that children should be nestled all snug in their beds. Good sleep is as important as good nutrition in raising happy, healthy kids, but unfortunately, most children are not getting enough shut-eye to allow visions of sugar plums to dance in their heads.

(Photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 77% of preschoolers, who should get 11-12 hours of sleep daily, experience sleep-related disruptive behaviors at least a few nights a week.

Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown and Dr. Andrew Gall, with assistance from 13 Hope students and participation from 73 Holland-area preschoolers and their parents, used novel methodology in a study this past fall to better understand how children’s good (or bad) sleep hygiene affects not only their health and welfare but learning and playing, too.

Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown
Dr. Andrew Gall

Parental sleep journals and wearable exercise technology were their means to gather the study’s sleep data. As parents recorded their preschoolers sleep routines, light/sound exposures at night, and daily socioemotional interactions, a Fitbit ® — worn around the preschoolers’ ankles for 12 weeks — digitally recorded activity patterns during the day and night. Fitbits ® can capture detailed quantitative measurements besides steps and calories burned. They also record sleep onset and offset (including nap times), number of nighttime awakenings, and the amount of time spent awake during the night.

The devices were the perfect fit to help the professors, and eventually parents, understand how good sleep hygiene, and possible necessary interventions, can help preschoolers get the good sleep they need. Good sleep hygiene is defined as consistent bedtimes and morning rising times, and avoiding large meals, caffeine, and light sources (e.g., night lights, smart phones, iPads, computers) before bedtime.

“Honestly, it was just fun working with preschoolers. Since I’m a pretty tall guy, sometimes they got a little bit shy around me, but after one or two (memory) games, they opened up and would tell me all about going sledding with friends or having a friend over to play games.”

“Very few studies have examined sleep patterns in preschoolers in their home environments,” says Gall who specializes in the neuroscience of sleep.

“This project is very close to our hearts,” adds Trent-Brown who specializes in early childhood development. “We’ve both experienced the joys and challenges of parenting preschoolers … We want for other parents to have the opportunity to learn more about their children and themselves.”

Dr. Andrew Gall tests out a Fitbit on his daughter, Stella. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Gall)

Funded by a $32,500 grant from the Caplan Foundation for Early Childhood, the study also involved Hope students who visited two Holland preschools to test the participants on memory performance tasks. Storytelling and missing object recall were two such tasks administered by Bradley Dixon who joined the project early, conducting preparatory work last summer.

“It was an awesome experience as a sophomore to have an opportunity to work in the field,” said Dixon, who is from Kentwood, Michigan. “I’m hoping to eventually work with real patients some day, so this was really a great experience to be able to spend time with people. It helped me understand the difference between learning about psychology in a textbook and applying it in real life.

“Plus, honestly, it was just fun working with preschoolers. Since I’m a pretty tall guy, sometimes they got a little bit shy around me, but after one or two (memory) games, they opened up and would tell me all about going sledding with friends or having a friend over to play games. So that was fun too.”

The professors have plans to write children’s books too about getting good sleep. In doing so, their findings will reach those who are the ones meant to hear the lessons their research uncovered: parents and preschoolers themselves.

Trent-Brown and Gall, as well as their students, will look over the data in the spring semester and reach their conclusions. While scholarly publication of their findings is expected, the professors plan to write children’s books about getting good sleep in order to reach parents and preschoolers themselves.

“We want them to know that sleep matters,” says Trent-Brown. “The Centers for Disease Control calls sleep deprivation in the U.S. a ‘public health epidemic’ because Americans — from all walks of life and across all developmental lifespan periods — aren’t getting the sleep we require and we underestimate its importance and undermine its impact. To use a colloquial phrase, ‘Don’t sleep’ on sleep!”